What does a feminist parent look like?

I have been writing my blog about feminist motherhood for five years but it took a few years of reading and writing on the topic for me to have much of a clue, really, on how to define feminist parenting, apart from just the fact that it included me – a feminist with a baby. When I first became a mother I had one feminist friend with kids and that was it.

Sometime back in the first year of blogging I started wondering who was reading my blog, and if they were parents how they would define their feminist parenting. So, I put up a post with ’10 Questions About Your Feminist Parenthood’ and I waited to see what would happen. I expected maybe half a dozen responses, if I was lucky, but over the years word has spread and all together I have received almost 100 responses.. with more still coming in. (And you’re very welcome to contribute a response of your own, too).

The responses have come from all over the world, including Australia, USA, Italy, UK, Canada, New Zealand, France, Germany, South Korea, Singapore and South America, and they have included a wide range of parenting experiences, such as primary parents, step-parents, adoptive parents, grandparents, co-parents and one set of expectant parents. Among the people responding there have been single parents and partnered parents; queer parents and straight parents; and at-home parents, parents who are also students and parents working in paid employment. The responses have been an absolute pleasure to read – they have been equal parts fascinating, charming, funny, sad, reassuring and revealing. (They make for a great paper and, in fact, I delivered a paper last year to a conference on this very subject and you can see links at the bottom of this post for a summary of my findings).

These responses have also changed some of my views on feminist parenthood. For instance, no other question received as strong a response as that of question 7, which was about how women reconciled the sacrifice involved in motherhood with their feminism. An overwhelming majority of women said they couldn’t relate to the question, and some even found it offensive. (Interestingly, a few other mothers said it was not only something they could relate to but that it was something they were struggling with in their lives, and all of those women happened to be at-home parents). These responses helped me to realise that feminism often over-simplifies the barriers holding mothers back and that it can tend to be seen as blaming mothers, themselves, rather than the patriarchal ways in which we organise the world against mothers and their care work. It also made me think that ‘sacrifice’ is a very loaded word.

So, what does a feminist parent look like? Here is a smattering of highlights from the responses I have received to my ’10 Questions About Your Feminist Parenthood’:

How has parenthood changed your feminism?

“I drank with the boys, talked music with the boys, studied with the boys, worked with the boys, and hated every girl I saw. So, being female didn’t play a role in how I lived (except I got to sleep with some of my best friends). I first called myself a feminist after giving birth to a girl who I couldn’t help but like. It forced me to realise that I am female. When the party’s over and I can’t live like a bachelor anymore. It has forced me to identify with my sex”.

“Mr Mom was a fairly unusual arrangement 20 years ago and I thought it confirmed my feminism. Instead I worked nonstop as breadwinner and mother. In many ways I overcompensated for not being home during the day by trying to be the perfect mom at nights and on weekends. Did I mention I did all the cooking and cleaning too? Yeah, not so feminist an approach.. It has taken me a long time to understand that ‘motherhood means sacrifice’ does not mean mothers are solely responsible for sacrifice”.

“When I was younger I was all about women competing in the public sphere. Now I’m all about that if that is what folks want. But also I want work inside the home to be valued more”.

“My initial reaction to this is to think that my feminism hasn’t changed, that it’s just an immutable part of my personality, but this isn’t true. Working as a midwife has exposed me to just a selection of the myriad ways that women are abused, even educated, privileged, middle-class white women. And every day I think that if they are subject to abuse because they are women, what the hell must it be like for the non-English speaking, the homeless, the illiterate, the substance-addicted and the young women that also walk through our doors to have their babies?”

What surprised you about parenthood?

“I had no idea I would fall in love so completely and overwhelmingly. It amazes me that there is this big cultural silence on this issue. Where are the songs, the stories about any form of love other than the romantic sort?”

“I always assumed that I would be a working mother. What I could not imagine is the anguish going back to work caused me. Leaving my son at 8 weeks old left me emotionally and physically bereft. I’d sit in my office at lunch, pumping and crying. Every day off that I spent with my son, I cried because I knew I would have to go back to work. Breastfeeding became a do or die situations for me because it was the one thing that I alone could provide for my son, regardless of whether I was with him all day or not. Not having any choices re. working part-time, working from home; being tied to my job in part because of benefits, it made me realise that mothering and how we choose to mother are FEMINIST choices”.

On suddenly feeling so dependent upon their male partner in a way they’ve not previously experienced (“when I was caring full-time for my son, who was born with a physical disability, I realised how dependent I was on my partner financially, and it freaked me out”), which was also a very negative experience for some (“the sinking feeling that I had tied myself to someone I really wasn’t sure I should have married. I felt like I was at my partner’s mercy. Once I had a baby he turned dictator”).

“I spent the last two months of my first pregnancy reading The Second Sex and I was so ready to raise this kick-ass, take nothing from anyone girl, and now.. that boy has three younger brothers”.

From a profeminist father: “At the end of the day, your main task is to survive and support your family and raise happy children; how you respond to the things you can’t control reveals a great deal about your character. You might discover a capacity for sacrifice and care that you never knew was there. On the flip side.. you might also find yourself erupting with petty rage and misdirected resentment, eruptions that frighten you, your child, and your partner.. when our worst emotions take over.. it is easiest of all for both fathers and mothers to fall back on traditional patterns of dominance and submission”.

What is feminist parenting?

“I wish I could say that my objection to patriarchal authoritarianism has translated into an approach to child-rearing that is gentle, reciprocal, and respectful. Let me tell you, though, I yell way too much. I pull rank all the time. I’m always indirectly playing the Bigger Than You Are card. I hate it. I also would like to claim that my experience as a mother has made me more politically active, more involved in my community. No. My experience as a mother has made me tired and cranky and frustrated.”

“As a mother I was and am straightforward about being marginalised by society for being a working class mother. So, I ‘outed’ every instance where this happened to my son (who is now 21), so he would be in no doubt about what my place was in society and, by associating, his place as a working class male. Also I was very fierce about violence against women, and to the best of my knowledge my son has never hit a woman”. (Several mothers who identified as working class talked about the importance of identifying intersection and training their children to cope with the multiple oppressions).

“Feminism has not necessarily made me a better mother. It’s given me.. an alternative, perhaps kinder model for self-critique, instead of worrying about whether the house is clean enough, I’m thinking about whether or not I’ve met my own social or intellectual needs, in order to ensure I’m fulfilled and happy, which in turn makes me a better more resilient, more patient mother”.

What are the hardest parts of being a feminist parent?

“When I look at the roles in our household I definitely do the majority of the housework. I hate what this models for my son. I feel like I’m failing him in terms of his future relationships with women (and failing those women too)”.

“Being the type of mother I am and the type of person I am means that fitting in with other new mothers has been a challenge at times. My ‘wanting to be liked’ side conflicts with my ‘opinionated and judgemental’ side. Yes, I want to be tolerant and respect other people’s choices, but I also want to speak my mind without being pigeon-holed as the freaky-hippy-lesbian mum”.

“Other feelings of failure – the first time you balance wanting your son to be whoever he wants to be and wanting to protect him from teasing if he decides he wants to wear pink to kindergarten. The catching of myself disliking my belly in the mirror. The moment when my three year old son told my woman dermatologist that she didn’t look like a doctor”.

For more, see the following links at my blog.

PART 1 – This is what I said a feminist mother looks like: the questionnaire, demographics, key themes and becoming feminists

PART 2 – This is what I said a feminist mother looks like: the impact of motherhood on their feminism

PART 3 – This is what I said a feminist mother looks like: Being surprised by motherhood

PART 4 – This is what I said a feminist mother looks like: defining their feminist parenting

PART 5 – This is what I said a feminist mother looks like: the difficulties with being a feminist parent

(You can follow me on twitter @bluemilk)

26 comments for “What does a feminist parent look like?

  1. jemima101
    August 19, 2012 at 9:15 am

    My biggest problem is that it only seems to be the mothers of boys who care about gender stereotyping.While we hunt for non army themed clothing, creative toys and insist on girls being invited to birthday parties, the parents of girls seem to be happy drowning them in pink, princesses, and hosting pamper parties that deliberately exclude boys.

  2. miriam
    August 19, 2012 at 9:24 am

    She only wrote about the mother, what about the father?

  3. August 19, 2012 at 11:10 am

    She only wrote about the mother, what about the father?

    Buh? She related stories from her website, which came predominantly but not exclusively from women. If you follow her first link, you will see that only ONE male-identified person responded, and she included one of his responses. Surprise, surprise, more women than men voluntarily identify as “feminist” parents, but there’s no indication that bluemilk has gone out of her way to exclude those men who do identify as feminist.

    ANYWAY, asinine first comment aside, this is a really interesting post, bluemilk. What a cool exercise to have gone through over the years. I’d have loved to come across something like this at a conference or in a journal – so much more vibrant than a lot of research projects I’ve seen on similar subjects.

  4. cherrybomb
    August 19, 2012 at 12:42 pm

    “the first time you balance wanting your son to be whoever he wants to be and wanting to protect him from teasing if he decides he wants to wear pink to kindergarten”

    “I wish I could say that my objection to patriarchal authoritarianism has translated into an approach to child-rearing that is gentle, reciprocal, and respectful. Let me tell you, though, I yell way too much. I pull rank all the time. I’m always indirectly playing the Bigger Than You Are card. I hate it.”

    “Feminism has not necessarily made me a better mother. It’s given me.. an alternative, perhaps kinder model for self-critique”

    All this. And so much more.

  5. Sarah
    August 19, 2012 at 1:02 pm

    I loved this post. It’s so cool to read all of these responses, get all these different perspectives on motherhood. Too often I think we simplify motherhood to something either angelic and perfect or draining and horrible, and reading these make me realize that it’s so much more complicated than that.

  6. Mike
    August 19, 2012 at 3:16 pm

    Buh? She related stories from her website, which came predominantly but not exclusively from women.

    Way to reinforce the stereotype that feminist mom=divorced/single mom.

  7. Marissa
    August 19, 2012 at 4:54 pm

    Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    Ever since I started thinking about having kids, I’ve been realizing more and more how silent the feminist blogosphere (call it “f.b.”) is on parenthood. Many of the “big names” in the f.b. are child-free by choice, so there seems to be a dearth of interest in talking about parenting from a feminist perspective. The f.b. is always good on abortion rights, and has become a lot better about rights for birthing people, but it seems once Baby is out, there’s less to read in the f.b.

    If I noticed this in a desultory sort of way in years past, it’s become so much more striking for me this year, since I’m now going on 30 weeks pregnant with my first kid. I keep looking in my regular feminist blogroll for posts on how to raise justice-minded children in a racist, sexist, homophobic world, or on the realities of feminist parenting, especially given the inherent inequality of breastfeeding. Unfortunately, I rarely see anything related to parenthood.

    So I just have to thank the editors at Feministe for bringing on you as a guest blogger, and thank you for coming here and sharing this. Just the existence of this post makes me feel more welcome in the f.b. I’m going to go visit your blog now . . . .

  8. Cheryl
    August 19, 2012 at 4:58 pm

    Motherhood does force you to reexamine your ideas about womanhood and feminism. I just wrote an open-letter to my daughter about what the promises I wanted to make to her. You might enjoy it: To Sophia on Her Sixth Birthday. With Love, Your Feminist Historian Mom.

    http://nursingclio.wordpress.com/2012/08/17/to-sophia-on-her-sixth-birthday-with-love-your-feminist-historian-mom/

  9. Safiya Outlines
    August 19, 2012 at 5:18 pm

    Love this, love it ( and I’ll try to fill in one soon).

    Further to what Marisa said about the wider f.b’s silence about motherhood:

    Motherhood made me realise the need for feminism more then any other experience in my life, motherhood made me realise how easy it is to end up compromising, to size yourself down, to put everyone else’s needs before your own.

    Then there’s the dichotomy of fulfilling that supposedly praised role of mother (so being seen as a bit of a sell out, for want of a better word), yet finding out that being a mother not only doesn’t get you the advantages people claim, it chucks in a load of disadvantages and your very right to exist in public is always up for scrutiny and debate.

    I really need the f.b in my corner on this (and I’m sure I’m not alone), but it’s just not there.

  10. blue milk
    August 19, 2012 at 5:40 pm

    I meant to put it in the body of this post that I have only ever received one father’s response to the questions, sorry about that. For the record, the majority of women responding are partnered and to men.. and one of the questions asks them about their partner’s attitudes and feelings towards their feminist parenting so I picked up a bit from that. Generally very supportive would be a fair summary.

  11. Lolagirl
    August 20, 2012 at 8:32 am

    I keep looking in my regular feminist blogroll for posts on how to raise justice-minded children in a racist, sexist, homophobic world, or on the realities of feminist parenting, especially given the inherent inequality of breastfeeding. Unfortunately, I rarely see anything related to parenthood.

    Well, there is some discussion of parenthood, except it’s usually criticism of birthing choices or parenting practices, or maybe the most fun of all, the WOHP v SAHP debate/wars. Even here at Feministe it’s quite common, and it is also quite discouraging.

    I really need the f.b in my corner on this (and I’m sure I’m not alone), but it’s just not there.

    No, you most certainly are not alone. I’ve recently started reading at Blue Milk more often because she addresses all of these issues on a regular basis in a really thoughful and insightful manner, and without the message (either inherent or flat out) that I’m a feminist sell-out because I had the temerity to reproduce and parent.

  12. John
    August 20, 2012 at 10:35 am

    I don’t call myself a feminist father, I don’t like labels. I do strongly believe in equality however.
    I have a 15-year old daughter and a 22-year old son. I want her to have the same opportunities as he has had, to a decent education, a career and a family (all at the same time if need be) and enjoy the same rights, including to walk the streets safely and to be treated with decency and respect by their partners and by others (if they show respect themselves).
    My daughter had an assignment in English at school to write to her local town Council to complain about something. She chose their decision to grant a licence to a lapdancing club. Attagirl.

    • jemima101
      August 20, 2012 at 12:17 pm

      So equality only applies to people who make your lifestyle choices and excludes sex workers?
      Attagirl indeed, another generation of slut shaming Daily Mail readers is produced.

  13. B
    August 20, 2012 at 11:22 am

    blue milk, if you want more responses from feminist dads, you may want to change the title to “what does a feminist parent look like” rather than “what does a feminist mother look like”. When I read the intro posts, nothing says to me that you’re hoping to hear from guys.

  14. Lolagirl
    August 20, 2012 at 11:38 am

    you may want to change the title to “what does a feminist parent look like” rather than “what does a feminist mother look like”.

    That would be great advice, if the title of this piece wasn’t already “what does a feminist parent look like?”

    Can we not derail this discussion with concern trolling what about the poor menfolks getting left out in the cold? Please?

  15. B
    August 20, 2012 at 11:58 am

    Sorry. If you read her post on the conference presentation, one of the self-described limitations on her work is an “over-reliance on the sole male respondent”, which I interpreted (possibly incorrectly) that she would have liked to hear from more men. I intended the recommendation to be about the posts on her blog, not this one.

    blue milk, let us know when you get published, I would be interested in reading the academic version of the paper.

  16. samanthab
    August 20, 2012 at 12:14 pm

    It’s so lovely that you’ve provided a space for parents to discuss the lives they live rather than they lives they should live. In the U.S., at least, parenting seems to garner so many “you should’s” and “you must’s,” none of which are very helpful or very interesting to read.

  17. John
    August 20, 2012 at 12:38 pm

    jemima101

    It’s got nothing to do with slut-shaming. This is why I don’t like saying I’m a “feminist” father: women have (it seems to me) hard enough a time deciding among yourselves what feminism means, let alone the other half of the human race telling them what it means.
    There are loads of feminists who disapprove strongly of sex encounter establishments and you know it. Are Object any less feminists because they object? You can disapprove of it without labelling the women who may decide to work in such places. You used the “slut” word, not me.

    • jemima101
      August 20, 2012 at 1:45 pm

      Nothing to do with what you do or don’t describe yourself as, I was merely pointing ot the hypocrisy of claiming to believe in equality, then trumpeting an action that was prejudiced as “proof” of your credentials.

      Yes anti sex people of all hues, including some feminists/ pro feminist men, are rabidly anti the rights of sex workers. I call their bigotry too, so don’t worry, yo are not alone in being asked to reconsider your ideas. Perhaps you might point both your children in the direction of the excellent sexonomics. Broadening peoples out look is always good parenting.

      As for your attempted attack on me re the widely accepted term slut shaming, I suggest this http://finallyfeminism101.wordpress.com/2010/04/04/what-is-slut-shaming/

  18. Lolagirl
    August 20, 2012 at 12:47 pm

    Sorry. If you read her post on the conference presentation, one of the self-described limitations on her work is an “over-reliance on the sole male respondent”, which I interpreted (possibly incorrectly) that she would have liked to hear from more men. I intended the recommendation to be about the posts on her blog, not this one.

    I see now that I apparently missed part of your point in that you were addressing Blue Milk’s blog posts specifically.

    That being said, she also repeatedly refers to feminist parenting in those posts, so she isn’t excluding non-women in any way.

    Blue Milk is a woman and a mother, so of course her pov is intimately informed by that experience. I don’t see anything wrong with a blogger writing about her own experiences in her own voice, and it doesn’t necessarily translate that she is excluding those who aren’t coming from the same place that she is. It would be far more problematic to me if she was insisting upon speaking for those whose experiences, points of view, and voices were far outside her own.

  19. blue milk
    August 20, 2012 at 5:32 pm

    B – thanks for the comment/interest. When I first started the 10 questions project I was only considering mothers – I was a newish mother and I really wanted to build a community for myself with other mothers – but that changed as my experiences progressed and when a father eventually responded to the 10 questions I was fascinated and have tried to use ‘parents’ instead of ‘mothers’ since. Of course, there is nothing to stop fathers from doing something similar on a fatherhood blog if they feel inadequately catered for on a mother’s blog.

    Jemima and John – I don’t want to derail my own comment thread and I would stamp down on it if this thread was turning into an anti-sex worker thread, but I think a feminist can be both supportive of sex workers and opposed to how the sex industry is run. I know this is a complicated topic, but I like the idea of a high school girl having an interest in how the sex industry is run in her local community and also, getting some practice in at protesting something to her government.

    Of course, learning how to unpack and identify slut-shaming would also be wonderful in highschool, because lord knows, in my experience it was pretty much an experience of slut-shaming from start-to-finish for me and the other girls I went to school with. Blurk.

    • jemima101
      August 20, 2012 at 7:22 pm

      Apologies Blue, you are quite correct, not the place to have that particular argument. Just saw one of my red rags and responded

      @Alphabet…sadly that is not what I see, and this is something that has been much discussed among the parents I know concerned with gender equality. It may be a British issue, a middle class issue or simply the parents I know. Personally I do not see such discussion as counter productive as i think it points to the impact advertising has especially on children. I thank no particular deity I did not grow up with Disney princesses and thongs for 9 year olds.

      Anyway as soon as I am off my phone I will be checking out Blues blog, it looks very interesting.

  20. Alphabet
    August 20, 2012 at 5:58 pm

    Jemima,
    I think your first comment of the thread must have been in mod so people missed it and haven’t replied to it, so I will.

    Lots of mothers of girls work really hard to fight gender stereotyping, and in fact, there tends to be more support for girls who work outside of gender norms than for boys because of that. But just as there are lots of parents who insist on their boys being masculine, there are lots who insist on feminine girls. It’s why there is still work to be done. But proclaiming that only you are fighting the good fight is a bit counter-productive.

  21. Alphabet
    August 20, 2012 at 9:20 pm

    Jemima,
    I can’t speak to if there is a difference in the US vs the UK. And I wasn’t saying the discussion was counterproductive. I said that accusing moms of girls of generally not caring was counter productive.

    There is a really good blog called Packaging Girlhood and a book called Cinderella Ate My Daughter which both address the issue, because lots of the moms I know are very concerned. The over-sexualization and objectification of younger and younger girls is getting worse every day! This is something we agree on.

  22. August 21, 2012 at 2:07 pm

    Wow – some great thoughts here. I, too, have often wondered what my parenting role has reflected to my daughters. I handle the “inside chores” while my husband handles the “outside chores”. My daughters and I do the majority of the cooking and cleaning and “traditional” womanly chores around the house.

    Recently, my oldest daughter offered to mow the grass. Since we’re in a drought that’s not yet been possible, but I’d love to see my kids take on tasks that are normally handled by men and see that as normal. I want my daughters to grow up to be strong, independent women capable of handling anything.

  23. August 21, 2012 at 3:08 pm

    Slightly OT

    “beautiful boy”-John Lennon
    “Thanks For My Child”-Cheryl Riley
    “Fathers”-John Mayer

    Some examples of parental affection songs.

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